Meet the man behind 'The Tank Man'

Art June 05, 2014 00:00


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American photographer Jeff Widener was on the front line in blood-soaked Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989

He was also the one who took the picture of a lone man standing at the head of a line of tanks on Bejing’s Changan Avenue of Eternal Peace as they rolled toward the nearby public square. 
“The Tank Man”, as the image became known while achieving iconic status, earned Widener a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.
Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the uprising, Widener will be in Bangkok next Monday to share his recollections. He’s currently doing the same in Hong Kong.
It was in Bangkok where he was based in 1989 as the Associated Press’ Southeast Asia photo editor. 
The student-led protest in Beijing had been going on for weeks before the deadly crackdown, and Widener was there on June 4 to get the shot that epitomised the dissidents’ unwillingness to back down. It was taken secretively, of course, and then transmitted outside the country just as furtively – only to appear on the front pages of newspapers around the world. 
Meanwhile Widener was almost killed when a rock thrown at the troops by a protester struck him in the head instead.
Widener had checked into Beijing’s Jianguo Hotel just ahead of the crackdown. Fellow American Kirk Martsen managed to get him past balking security officials – and later brought Widener more film when he ran out. It was from a window of that hotel room that he noticed the audacious movements of “the Tank Man” and it was one of those rolls of film that Widener used to get the famous photo. “Kirk risked his life,” Widener told Time magazine.
“I was leaning over the balcony, aiming at this row of tanks, and the guy walks out with this shopping bag and I was thinking, ‘The guy is going to ruin my composition!’” he told CNN. 
Knowing he was carrying journalistic “dynamite”, he got the film to the AP office in the US diplomatic compound. “I navigated my way past burned-out buses and smashed bicycles to the Associated Press office. I was sick as a dog with the flu and suffering from a severe concussion [after being struck by the rock],” he told the Washington Post.
“The Nikon F3 Titanium camera had had absorbed the shock and thus saved my life.” 
Few citizens of China have seen “The Tank Man” picture because it’s banned, but elsewhere it is one of history’s most-recognised photos. It didn’t win a Pulitzer but has garnered several other awards.
Widener, 57, never rested on his laurels, taking assignments in more than 100 countries, from war to social issues. He was the first to file digital images from the South Pole. He also covered strife in East Timor and Cambodia, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Papua New Guinea, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the first Gulf War, the occupation of Afghanistan and the Polish Solidarity uprising.
In Bangkok he will talk about his pictures taken in Thailand and will autograph his prints for sale.
 Widener’s talk will be at 7pm on Monday at the Neilson Hays Library. Admission is Bt200. For details, e-mail 
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